Six Things I Learned About University Branding.


Whether you think of it as the thing people say about you after you’ve left the room, a promise delivered, the sub-total of all your customer’s experiences or simply the name/term/sign/symbol that identifies the maker, “brand” has become a key area of focus within higher education.

The purpose of branding has always been about differentiation (“that’s my cow, not your cow”) so within the context of sector growth, increasing complexity and internationalisation, it’s not surprising that universities (and colleges and schools actually) are desperate to be noticed, remembered and chosen from amongst their peer groups. This is why they are grappling with “brand”.

A UK university I worked for launched a new brand identity; the activity of review, analysis and re-branding was an experience and an education. Here are six things that I learned (or had reinforced) during the process:


1. Your Brand already exists.

I particularly like the “it’s what people say about you…” as a definition of branding, it reinforces the fact that an educational institution already has a brand (whether it likes it or not). The issue is only whether the organisation is going to manage it, or not.

2. Words matter.

“Brand” is a tricky (some might say toxic) word in certain quarters. I’ve also worked in the third-sector and the branding conversation there could also be difficult. It can be perceived as an artificial thing the private sector creates in an attempt to manipulate or mislead customers. Using an alternative vocabulary of “reputation”, “personality” and “shared values” allows for a constructive space to properly consider the issue. In doing so it’s possible to conduct a brand review and not even mention the “b” word.

3. The iceberg effect

It’s possible to think that branding is all about the logo, or visual identity, it’s not. A brand review can be conducted without any change to the corporate image. The identity always receives maximum attention, but a review should look at the core issues first.

Key things to determine include: the internal and external perceptions, position in the market, organisational goals, audience need and the provable ability to meet that need. Only when these things are understood can the process of creating a brand proposition begin and only then should the visual identity, guidelines and copy style guides be reviewed. If they fail to support and articulate the proposition then they should be changed (and launched only after comprehensive testing with key audiences).

4. People don’t like change.

I’m sure there’s a personality test which identifies one’s comfort with change, people scoring “low” probably won’t immediately warm to new logos. If you do change your visual identity some people will object. The premise of this type of article is that the reactionaries are wrong and you, as a hard-working marketing/communications professional are right. Unfortunately that isn’t necessarily so. If you skip all the investigation (the iceberg below the surface) but decide to change the logo anyway, there’s a good chance you’ll be changing it back again quite soon. If you’ve done your homework and you effectively communicate the reasoning, supporters will emerge and wider acceptance will follow.

5. You can’t control (the entirety) of your brand.

A brand in education is similar to the service sector in that it is in the hands of those that deliver the core offer. For a hotel the receptionist, concierge, bar and room service staff mostly determine the customer experience, in education it’ll largely be in the hands of academic staff. It’s a step too far to suggest that marketing personnel should measure and evaluate the experience in the classroom, but it does emphasise that the values and essence of the brand have to be owned, understood and real to everyone in the organisation or the promise won’t survive beyond the marketing collateral.

6. People (really) care.

This is the reason that branding within education is so difficult and yet potentially so rewarding. The output of education is profound, meaningful and life-changing, students, parents, alumni and staff care deeply about their institution and its reputation. Changing how it looks or communicates can be really challenging because they are heavily invested and if we get it wrong it’ll be heavily criticised.

Re-branding in education is challenging but when done well it can act as a catalyst for positive change, releasing energy and contributing to the successful future of an institution, its students, alumni and its unique place in the world. It’s a difficult process but in the increasingly crowded space, its not a thing that can be ignored.


Contact us if you'd like to discuss and understand how you can more effectively manage, develop and promote your brand.